In Memory of Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (1956-2015)

Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, most famous for photographing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), has passed away from a heart attack at age 59. Lesnie, who won an Oscar the one time he was nominated (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), also made his mark with two other Peter Jackson films, King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009), in addition to photographing other films including Babe (1995), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), I Am Legend (2007), The Last Airbender (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). His final film, The Water Diviner (2014), which was directed by Russell Crowe, was just released in American theaters – in IMAX, no less – this past Friday. In a recent Associated Press review of The Water Diviner, Lesnie’s cinematography was described as “so exquisite that sometimes it alone propels the story.”

(Peter Jackson and his director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2011.)

In honor of Lesnie’s wonderful cinematography in the Lord of the Rings films, I would like to highlight some of the scenes he shot in each part of the trilogy. Although this talented man has left us far too soon, his work will not be forgotten by legions of fans all over the world. His mastery of the camera will continue to inspire both viewers and makers of movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Our introduction to Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf makes the Shire look as lush and green as every Tolkien fan must have imagined while reading the book. It is easy to see how Lesnie won an Oscar for his photography here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – The “Evenstar” scene is my favorite part of the film. Aragorn’s memory of an encounter with Arwen is dreamlike but it is not filmed in typical soft focus; instead it is clear, the light casting a goddesslike glow over Arwen’s flowing gown and pale skin. Half of the beauty is in Howard Shore’s score, but the other half is in the images, especially when they have a blue tint.

I spoke too soon: I have another favorite part of The Two Towers (it is, after all, my favorite film in the trilogy). The battle of Helm’s Deep, as shown in these two videos, is intense every time I see it. Even after twelve years, the combat is heart-pounding. From the dark blue shadows of the fighting in the rain to the bright white light of Gandalf’s victorious charge forth into the fray, the cinematography is a significant part of what creates the sense of “epic” storytelling.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – In the final chapter of the trilogy, the big heroic battle shows the scope of this heroic struggle for the soldiers of Rohan (“the Rohirrim”) to slay the invading Orcs. The monumental clash of the two armies is the essence of the excitement in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films: it has all the thrill and grandeur that we came to expect of Andrew Lesnie’s camerawork.


Making the Case for Fandom: A Truncated Journey

I must ruefully admit that while I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I have never read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. (In fifth grade I bought a box set that also included The Hobbit, which I started to read… but I got stuck in chapter two, amidst all the discussion of roast mutton.) Therefore my appreciation of the world shown in the films is based entirely on how great the films are and by how well the actors, screenplay and other technical elements brought those Tolkien characters to life.

Three nights ago I watched most of The Two Towers on cable. It always stuns me when I notice how much of the dialogue I know right away, anticipating it before the characters speak. I don’t know if The Two Towers is necessarily the best film in the trilogy, but it will always be my favorite one.

The love scene in Imladris between Aragorn and Arwen is one of the best moments in the film (the YouTube clip’s lack of Elvish subtitles notwithstanding). As the “Evenstar” theme plays, we see the romantic beauty that lingers in Aragorn’s memories beyond the warrior’s exterior. (Not to sound like fanfiction too much, but it really is a beautiful scene.)

I suppose I could have read Tolkien if I’d wanted to, but between the ages of nine and eleven, the joy of seeing the Lord of the Rings trilogy without knowing what would happen in the films was really exciting. I know I can’t claim to be a superfan in the same way that Tolkien readers are, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love Peter Jackson’s films as much as any other avowed geek. I’m darned proud of it, and as soon as I find my Legolas shirt, I’m going to wear it again. I’m glad to be a member of the LOTR fandom.